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Part Three: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, America, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Politics, Postmodernism, Scholarship, Teaching, The Academy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 23, 2016 at 6:45 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.


AM:  James Seaton is a good friend.  He and I began corresponding roughly a decade ago, and we first met in person about six years ago at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Mecosta, Michigan.  His edition of Santayana had just come out with Yale University Press, and he was there to give a lecture on it.  Seaton opens his essay for your volume with the following sentence:  “Neither Henry James nor George Santayana were active participants in the politics of their time.”  Don’t you think there’s something inherently conservative in this very distance from one’s own cultural and political moment?  I’m thinking of Kirk’s admonition that conservatism is about the rejection of ideology. 

MZ:  It was actually James Seaton who, some time ago, in an innocuous but characteristically trenchant review of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism published in The Weekly Standard, provided for me the framework for thinking deeply about literature’s authenticity and its exploitation by postmodern criticism. I very regrettably lacked a lot of exposure to more traditional approaches to literature and, while I instinctively eschewed the most obscure theoretics, I remained unaware that the critic could do more than scamper around the edges of territory claimed by Jürgen Habermas and Paul de Man. To Kirk’s point, I think I had always rejected the ideology – I just wasn’t fully aware that there might be a viable alternative to it.

I do think there is something to be said for one’s distance from the cultural and political moment. The conservative disposition doesn’t really lend itself well to the act of politics, and this is perhaps why conservatives have been consistently rolled in nearly every public debate over culture for the last half-century. Being always on the defensive and lacking the language to explain the intuitive – Lee Harris calls this the “visceral code” – puts the conservative at a rhetorical, if not moral, disadvantage. For me, the everyday analogy to Seaton’s statement is the conservative tendency to focus on the admittedly prosaic underpinnings of civic life – largely the familial and the associational. As we are witnessing with the ever-increasing presence of the state in the daily lives of individuals, the absence of participation in politics by those whose disposition might be called “conservative” is conspicuous.

AM:  I remember where I was when I read Seaton’s review that you mention. In his book Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism, in the context of remarks about E. D. Hirsch, he says that “’[c]ultural literacy’ would be particularly valuable for those now termed the ‘culturally disadvantaged’ in achieving individual economic mobility,” and he adds that the “spread of cultural literacy would also promote political democracy, since discussion can only take place on the basis of at least some shared assumptions and common vocabulary.”  Do you agree with this?

 MZ: I would agree wholeheartedly. There has been much invested, however, in facilitating a kind of cultural amnesia. Some of it has been inadvertent, but much of it has not. As reflexive relativism has taken hold, any semblance of commonality has been superseded by historical moral equivalencies. Consequently, we are left with little more than recriminations and collective guilt. Western culture perhaps has much to atone for, but past transgressions cannot be the sole basis for self-definition. There just may be certain shared values and traditions that could serve as the basis for a common culture and a source of pride, but it is often more expedient to assign particular beliefs and behaviors to discrete and easily identifiable groups.

This may be cynical, but I think there is much to be gained politically – the recent election notwithstanding – from the veneration of difference. I’m not sure the individual is or ever has been truly dignified when human worth is either enhanced or degraded by how that individual is situated during any given cultural moment. It is difficult to argue that this is not what is happening now, at least to some degree. Perhaps by expanding our very narrow conceptions of diversity, we would have a much greater chance of constructive dialogue, which might then enact a more conscientious effort to promote this notion of cultural literacy. The deliberately false promise that multiculturalism is the surest path to unity and a common, mutual understanding has generated much confusion and it has, against its fundamental premise, created self-defeating forms of tribalism. The multiculturalist program has sought to validate rather than engage and evaluate global cultures, and its underside has been the raw factionalizing that consumes so much public discourse.

AM:  It is interesting and bothersome to see how multiculturalism has degenerated into a monolithic orthodoxy, which is by its very form and function against diversity, not for it.  I wonder what would happen if we exposed more students to political theory in the vein of Michael Polanyi of F. A. Hayek, thinkers whose intelligence and theoretical sophistication have to be taken seriously by those who study literary theory and criticism.  The forms of devolution and subsidiarity advocated by these men might provide challenges to the prevailing consensus among many students and teachers in English departments about the kind of ideas motivating certain figures on the right.

 MZ:  I do believe that radical multiculturalism militates against diversity, and in this regard the university has failed in one of its stated core missions. The failure to cultivate an inclusive campus community has been made evident not only by civil disobedience and other visible forms of unrest, but also by the imposition of predictable bureaucratic programs aimed at solving problems that the administrative bureaucracy has itself made worse. Obsessing about difference and instituting special privileges for certain groups, and then pontificating about equality just seems disingenuous. Current narratives on race as well as the devaluing of our common culture have been toxic for the university, as a lot of students, I think rightly, feel as though justice in this context is punitive. If there is any palpable hostility to the learning process or to intellectual climate on today’s typical campus, perhaps we as the academy should look inward rather than to historical prejudices that we can conveniently circle back to after having tried to address all of them through administrative means and a thoroughly politicized curriculum.

Moreover, as politics has regrettably become a proxy for character, even reasoned opposition to progressive ideals, particularly on the campus, is delegitimized and discounted as having been informed by sinister motives. I argue in the book that too often conservative ideas are either ignored by their critics or deliberately distorted so as to identify an enemy against which the social justice war may be fought. There is ample evidence of this, and I hesitate to identify any one event or episode to draw conclusions. Yet I recently find myself coming back to a video passed along to me that recorded the Young Americas Foundation at the University of Kansas being aggressively confronted at one of their meetings by protesters. What strikes me in that video is that the person behind the camera seems to be officiating the ensuing debate, commenting on and critiquing every gesture or utterance made by members of the YAF group, essentially flagging them for violations of rules to which they never agreed. The concept of civil discourse is applied so lopsidedly that only one set of ideas is allowed to prevail. I think this is by design, even though, as you suggest, a serious consideration of conservative ideas and philosophies would broaden minds and better prepare us all for the responsibilities of civic life.

AM:  Do you worry about our habits of reading in our technological and digital age?  I recall Harold Bloom once saying that we all read “against the clock.”  Readers of the Bible, he says, read with more urgency than, say, readers of Shakespeare, but there’s always the problem of the limitations of time: Life just isn’t long enough for us to read everything worth reading.  Thinking about that has sometimes led me into a feeling of existential angst, especially after I spent a few years on a self-imposed reading diet that included the consumption of a canonical work from Western Civilization per week.  When I finished the program each year, I was distraught at how little I’d actually read.  I’m concerned that we’re wasting a lot of precious time reading texts that just aren’t that fulfilling or edifying. 

MZ:  The reading project you describe is an ambitious one. I merely committed to reading a page of Waugh every day this year, and I couldn’t even do that. On a related note, a current depressing irony for me is that I have volume I of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time sitting on my shelf, and I have spent precious minutes staring at it, wondering if I could actually ever get through all 7 volumes. There are a lot of reasons for our society’s detachment from literature, and reading has definitely been made very difficult in the digital age. The sheer amount of available information is daunting, and it has led to a frenetic search for the quick, easy, and thereby ungratifying.

I think, though, that while the internet has shifted our ability to focus and perhaps even changed how our brains process information, it has also caused a loss of discipline. It appeals to human nature to swipe to the next task if something becomes intellectually difficult, and this is made almost compulsory by technology, especially for those young people who have been immersed in it almost literally from day 1. Maybe I’m just projecting, though. I struggle with it as well, and I also find myself often wondering, in this day and age of always needing to be busy, how much we all might benefit from slowing down and reading a little Austen.

AM:  This has been a fun interview for me.  One last question: are you working on any projects right now that readers should know about?

MZ:  Thanks, Allen, for the opportunity to talk with you. I have enjoyed it as well. I have shifted my research focus a bit from literature toward the state of the university more generally. Editing Literature and the Conservative Ideal prompted much thought about the future of higher education and the increasing importance of broad-mindedness on the campus.

I am currently editing a collection for Rowman & Littlefield tentatively titled Remaking the University: Liberal Learning, the West, and the Revival of American Higher Education. I am also in discussions to publish a separate volume entitled Defending the West: Finding Culture and Common Humanity in the Postmodern Age. Both books seek to build on a long tradition of support for free expression and the pursuit of truth as well as Western culture’s influence on both. After our discussion, though, I am realizing I might need to just be doing a bit more reading.

AM:  We all need that.  Thanks for the interview, Mark.


The Conservative Mindset

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Emerson, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Politics, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on July 20, 2016 at 6:45 am

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The following review first appeared here in the Los Angeles Review of Books.  Some of the references, such as those to the presidential primary season, may be dated now, but they were timely on the date of original publication.

The presidential primaries are at last upon us. The leading Republican candidates, including frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, have resorted to showmanship and grandstanding to make their case for the party nomination. Their harsh, uncouth rhetoric stands in marked contrast to the writings of Russell Amos Kirk, a founding father of modern American conservatism.

Books on Kirk exist, but they’re few. Fellow conservatives, many of them friends or colleagues of Kirk’s — like T. S. Eliot, William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, F. A. Hayek, Eric Voegelin, and Leo Strauss — have received more attention. In this regard, Kirk is the victim of his virtues: he was less polarizing, celebrated by followers and detractors alike for his measured temperament and learned judgments. He did earn numerous adversaries, including Hayek and Frank Meyer, who in retrospect appear more like ambivalent friends, but the staying power of Kirk’s congeniality seems to have softened objections to his most resolute opinions.

Bradley J. Birzer, a professor at Hillsdale College who holds a chair named for Kirk, fills a need with his lucid and ambitious biography. Birzer is the first researcher to have been granted full access to Kirk’s letters, diaries, and draft manuscripts. He has avoided — as others haven’t — defining Kirk by his list of accomplishments and has pieced together a comprehensive, complex account of Kirk’s personality, motivations, and influences.

Birzer offers five themes in Kirk’s work, and less so his private life, which Birzer only touches on: his intellectual heritage, his ideas of the transcendent, his Christian humanism, his fiction, and the reach and implications of his conservatism. Kirk isn’t a dull subject. One need not identify as a conservative to appreciate his polished charm and idiosyncrasies. A plump, bespectacled gentleman who feigned disdain for technology, Kirk was something of a spiritualist with a penchant for the weird. He considered himself a Stoic before he had converted to Catholicism, a regeneration that makes sense in light of the relation of Stoic to Pauline thought.

As a young man Kirk spent four years in the military. His feelings about this experience were conflicted. He suffered from a blend of ennui and disenchantment but occupied his free time with reading, writing, and studying. He was horrified by the use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the United States had decimated the most flourishing Western cultural and religious centers in the Japanese Empire, just as he was by the internment of Japanese Americans.

The tremendous violence of the 20th century, occasioned by the rise of Nazism, communism, and fascism, impressed upon Kirk a sense of tragedy and fatalism. He came to despise totalitarianism, bureaucracy, radicalism, and “ideology” as leveling systems that stamped out the dignity and individuality of the human person. Hard to place along the left-right spectrum, he was as critical of big corporations and the military as he was of big government and labor.

When Kirk inserted himself into political debates he supported Republican politicians, becoming temporarily more interventionist in his foreign policy before returning to a form of Taftian isolationism, but he always remained more worried about reawakening the moral imagination than in having the right candidates elected to office. His was a long view of society, one without a fixed teleology or secular eschatology, and skeptical of utopian thought. Kirk advocated a “republic of letters,” a community of high-minded and profoundly sensitive thinkers devoted to rearticulating perennial truths (such as the need to pacify human violence, temper human urges for power, and cultivate human longing for the transcendent or divine) and preserving humanist institutions.

Kirk’s politics were shaped by imaginative literature and characterized by a rich poetic vision and vast cultural literacy. Fascinated by such disparate figures as Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, T. S. Eliot, Sir Walter Scott, George Santayana, and most of the American Founders, Kirk was also versed in the libertarianism of Albert Jay Nock and Isabel Paterson, whose ideas he admired as a young man but vehemently rejected throughout his mature years. Burke and Babbitt, more than any other men, shaped his political philosophy. And his irreducible imagination made room for mysticism and a curious interest in ghosts.

Kirk’s debt to Burke cannot be overstated. “Like the nineteenth-century liberals,” Birzer says, “Kirk focused on the older Burke, but he countered their dismissal of Burke’s ideas as reactionary and exaggerated.” Kirk also downplayed Burke the Whig, who championed the cause of the American Revolution, which Kirk considered to be not a revolution but a conservative restoration of ancient English liberties. Kirk was wary about the Enlightenment, as was Burke, because the scientism of that period tended to oversimplify inherently complex human nature and behavior. Kirk also thought the Enlightenment philosophes had broken too readily from the tested traditions of the past that shaped human experience.

Kirk appealed to American patriotism — which he distinguished from reckless nationalism — in The American Cause (1957) (which he later renounced as a “child’s book”), The Roots of American Order (1974), and Americas British Culture (1993), drawing attention to what he saw as the enduring customs and mores that guard against utopian conjecture. Yet American patriotism was, in Kirk’s mind, heir to the patrimony of Athens, Jerusalem, Rome, and London. From the mistakes and successes of these symbolic cities Americans could learn to avoid “foreign aid” and “military violence,” as well as grandiose attempts to “struggle for the Americanization of the world.”

Disillusioned with academia after his graduate work at Duke, Kirk was offered a position, which he turned down, at the University of Chicago. Kirk fell in love with the University of St. Andrews, however, where he took his doctorate and wrote a lengthy dissertation on Edmund Burke that would later become his magnum opus, The Conservative Mind. Kirk revised The Conservative Mind throughout his life, adding new permutations and nuances in an attempt to ensure the continued resonance of his cultural mapping.

The almost instant success of The Conservative Mind made Kirk an unlikely celebrity. The book featured sharply etched portraits of men Kirk considered to be representatives of the conservative tradition. Regrettably, and perhaps tellingly, Kirk tended to ignore the contributions of women, passing over such apposite figures as Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe, with whom he, as a mystic Catholic anglophile, had much in common. Kirk shared more with these women, in fact, than he did with Coleridge or Thomas Babington Macaulay, who appear in The Conservative Mind.

Kirk was also woefully uneducated about American pragmatism. He overlooked Burke’s influence on, and compatibility with, pragmatism. (As Seth Vannatta ably demonstrates in Conservatism and Pragmatism (2014), Burke “is a model precursor of pragmatism because he chose to deal with circumstances rather than abstractions.”) Kirk failed to see the pragmatic elements of Santayana, whom he adored, and he seemed generally unaware of the work of C.S. Peirce. Kirk’s breezy dismissal of William James, Santayana’s teacher and later colleague, suggests he hadn’t read much of James’s oeuvre, for Kirk lumped the very different James and Dewey together in a manner that proved that Kirk himself was susceptible to the simplification and reduction he decried in others.

Conservatism, for Kirk, consisted of an attitude or mindset, not an explicit or detailed political program. Enumerating vague “canons” of conservatism that Kirk tweaked from edition to edition, The Conservative Mind was a “hagiographic litany,” a genealogy of the high-minded heroes of ordered liberty and convention. Kirk didn’t intend the book to be model scholarship. It was something more — an aestheticized bricolage cannibalized from Burke and Eliot and others, with inspirational and ritualistic value. It has never gone out of print.

Kirk is sometimes accused of being contradictory, holding simultaneously incompatible positions, in part because he lauded apparent antagonists such as John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln. “Kirk found something to like in each man,” Birzer says of Calhoun and Lincoln, “for each, from [Kirk’s] perspective, embodied some timeless truth made sacramentally incarnate.” Tension between rivaling conservative visions is reconciled in Kirk’s desire never “to create an ideology out of conservatism, a theology at the quick and the ready with which one could easily beat one’s opponents into submission.” Ideology, Kirk believed, was a symptom of totalitarianism, and as such was the common denominator of fascism and communism. Kirk believed his own philosophy was not an ideology, because he, like Burke, preferred “a principled defense of justice and prudence” to any specific faction or agenda. He recognized that change was necessary, but thought it should be guided by prudence and historical sensitivity.

For a history buff, Kirk could be positively ahistorical and uncritical, ignoring the nuances and particularities of events that shaped the lives of his heroes. He ignored Calhoun’s commitment to the peculiar institution, and with a quick wave of the hand erased slavery from Calhoun’s political calculus, adding without qualification that “Calhoun defended the rights of minorities.” Kirk made clumsy caricatures out of his assumed enemies, calling men like Emerson “the most influential of all American radicals.” Emerson had met Coleridge, whose Romanticism partially inspired Emerson’s transcendentalism. Yet Kirk loathed Emerson and praised Coleridge and saw no inconsistency in doing so.

Kirk was not alone during the 1950s. The decade witnessed a renaissance of conservatism, exemplified by the publication of not only Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, but also Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, Strauss’s Natural Right and History, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk, Voegelin’s New Science of Politics, Gabriel Marcel’s Man against Mass Society, Christopher Dawkins’s Understanding Europe, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, and Buckley’s God and Man at Yale. It was The Conservative Mind, however, that “gave one voice to a number of isolated and atomized voices.” It also lent intellectual substance and credibility to the activist groundswell surrounding such politicians as Goldwater a decade later.

When Kirk joined Buckley’s National Review, the manner of his writing changed. Previously he had contributed to literary and scholarly journals, but, as Birzer points out, his “contributions to the National Review slowly but surely crowded out his output to other periodicals.” Working for National Review also drew Kirk into personality conflicts that passed as theoretical disagreements. Kirk sided with Buckley, for instance, in banishing from the pages of National Review any writers associated with the John Birch Society. Kirk despised the egoism of Ayn Rand, scorned the label neoconservative, and did not take kindly to the doctrines of Irving Kristol. Yet Kirk held Leo Strauss in high regard, in no small part because of Strauss’s scholarship on Burke and natural rights.

Strauss is sometimes treated as the fount of neoconservativism, given that his students include, among others, Allan Bloom, Harry Jaffa, and Paul Wolfowitz. But Kirk never would have considered the esoteric and conscientious Strauss to be in a league with neoconservative provocateurs like Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz, who indicted Kirk for anti-Semitism after Kirk, in a speech before the Heritage Foundation, stated that some neoconservatives had mistaken Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States — a tactless comment that was blown out of proportion.

“Kirk never sought conformity with those around him,” Birzer argues, “because he never wanted to create a sect or a religion or a cult of personality.” Kirk labored for the sake of posterity, not self-promotion. “The idea of creating ‘Kirkians,’” as there are Straussians, Misesians, Randians, and Rothbardians, “would have horrified [Kirk] at every level of his being”; Birzer insists that Kirk “desired only to inspire and to leaven with the gifts given him,” adding that “[h]e did well.” “I hope,” Birzer concludes, “I have done at least half as well” in writing Kirk’s biography.

Bringing Kirk into renewed focus during a contentious election season, as the term conservatism is bandied about, contested, and abused by commentators as varied as David Brooks and Phyllis Schlafly, Megyn Kelly and Rush Limbaugh, Karl Rove and Michael Savage, Birzer reminds us that conservatism, properly understood, is a “means, a mood, an attitude to conserve, to preserve, and to pass on to future generations the best of the humane tradition rather than to advocate a particular political philosophy, party, or agenda.”

One wonders, watching the campaign stops and debate spectacles, the ominous political advertisements and alarmist fundraising operations, what’s left of this humane tradition in our current political discourse. When our politicians lack a responsible and meaningful awareness of the residual wisdom of the ages, we get the leadership and politics we deserve. Would that we had more Russell Kirks around to remind us of the enduring things that, in times like these, are hard to find and difficult to believe in.

Review of James Seaton’s “Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism”

In Academia, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Essays, Fiction, Historicism, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Pedagogy, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Postmodernism, Rhetoric, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on December 31, 2014 at 8:45 am

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This review first appeared here in The University Bookman.

Back when I was a pimple-faced graduate student in English and law, I ordered a book from Amazon titled Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism: From Criticism to Cultural Studies. The book had been out awhile, but I had only recently come across an intriguing piece by its author, James Seaton, a professor of English at Michigan State University. I read my purchase in earnest and then dashed off a complimentary email to Seaton days later. He responded, and we struck up a dialogue that continued for several years. I once visited him at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, where he spoke to a small crowd about George Santayana. He had just edited two of Santayana’s seminal essays for Yale University Press and had recruited Wilfred M. McClay, John Lachs, and Roger Kimball to contribute to the edition. We got along swimmingly, and Annette Kirk ensured that he and I had time alone to discuss whether I should apply to a doctoral program in English or continue down the path of the law.

Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism has all the themes and qualities that first drew me to Seaton. It is a collection of Seaton’s latest essays and reviews revised and synthesized into a comprehensive case for humanistic inquiry. Amplifying his arguments from Cultural Conservatism, Political Liberalism and reformulating his principles about the value of literature to society, Seaton continues to undercut the discipline of cultural studies, which he decries for its “obligatory leftism.” His leading contribution—the subject about which he stands to forge new directions in the field of literary criticism—is to revitalize old contributions, namely, the humanistic tradition as defined by Irving Babbitt and as represented by Aristotle, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, Henry James, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and Ralph Ellison. Chapters Two and Four are profitable beginnings of this project because they explain which critics (William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and which schools of criticism (Romanticism, Marxism, and the New Criticism) fall outside the humanistic tradition. These chapters, Four especially, are exciting, provocative, and significant. They supply the basis and much of the substance for the rest of the book and suggest that literature is not an agent of ideology, nor literary theory a master key that unlocks the door to grand solutions for political, scientific, and economic problems.

For those who are uninterested or unversed in literary criticism, however, reading Seaton will be like watching strategic athletic maneuvers—swing! parry! dive!—without a sense of what’s at stake in a sporting match whose tactics and rules are unknown. From the start he frames his argument with Plato and Aristotle, but today’s graduate students in English will be unclear what these men mean for the larger project of humanism or why they matter to contemporary audiences. With the exception of the Norton anthologies, most accounts of literary criticism in popular anthologies begin with Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century or with the New Critics in the early twentieth. The pinnacle of influence for these late critics roughly coincides with the development of English departments as institutions. To begin at the beginning—with the Greeks—will disorient those trained to look back at the literary canon through the prism of “contemporary” theories.

This remark is not a reproach of Seaton but of current literary studies; the chief merit of Seaton’s methodology is to demystify literary studies and to affirm there’s nothing new under the sun: the latest theories have definite antecedents (not necessarily good ones) and can be mapped by their continuity with other methodologies. Marxists of the Frankfurt School such as Herbert Marcuse, for example, follow in the wake of Plato: “Just as Plato had insisted on the necessity of censorship in his ideal Republic, Marcuse argued that suppression of free speech was required in the twentieth century for the establishment of what he considered true freedom.”

Seaton’s knack for classification emerges forcefully in the opening chapter. Here he arranges under three heads the whole history of literary criticism: the Platonic, the Neoplatonic, and the Aristotelian. He defines literary criticism as “a continuing conversation” among these three traditions inspired by just two Greek men. Adhering to the third category, the Aristotelian, which he calls humanistic, Seaton rejects the first because it questions the aesthetic value of literature, distrusts the sensory effects of literature, and treats great works as mere symptoms of ideological structures or institutions. “The philosophy of the Republic,” Seaton explains, “leaves no room for judging poetry according to literary excellence; all that counts is its political and social impact.” Seaton rejects the second, the Neoplatonic, for defending literature and poetry on the narrow and quixotic “basis of the moral and spiritual elevation it made possible.”

By contrast, Seaton submits, the “humanistic view of literature” might be “a middle way between the Platonic condemnation of art and literature and the Neoplatonic elevation.” The humanistic view “remains Aristotelian” because it considers “literature as a source of insight about human life” and is willing “to judge grand theory by the norms of common sense.” While Plato would expel poetry and theater from his ideal Republic, segregate poetry from philosophy, and train his Guardians to submit their virtues to the service of the State, Aristotle calls for “individual judgment about the literary merit and relevance to human life of particular works from audiences and certainly from would-be critics.” Neoplatonist overstatement about the manner in which “poetry brings us closer to the divine” also finds no place in Aristotelian humanism, which modestly maintains that literature “can tell us important things about human life but little about the universe.” Humanists write of the person as the person: they turn to literature to learn and to teach how to live well and wisely without fancying transcendental essences or utopian abstraction. The very crux of Aristotelian humanism is that “the importance of literature is linked to the significance of human life itself,” not to the political, ideological, or religious convictions that a work of literature implicates.

The triadic paradigm (Aristotelian, Platonist, Neoplatonist) may seem reductive, and indeed it is, but such reduction establishes recognizable classifications that encompass a diversity of interests and approaches while shaping a vocabulary for arranging distinctive properties into taxonomies to set apart certain authors and texts. Despite his skill for categorizing and simplifying schools of literary criticism, Seaton is steadfast that literary criticism is distinct in function and form from science: the former is as much an art as the art it explicates, whereas the latter is an empirical discipline that ascertains the natural rules of the phenomenal world by gathering and testing concrete data, building consensus among experts, and denominating general propositions to describe observable events. The contrast is not as sharp or essentialist as I have portrayed it—the pragmatic tradition of Peirce, James, and Santayana falls somewhere between art and science—but the fact that literary criticism has splintered into innumerable, contradictory schools suggests that the disparate methods and judgments of literary critics are not derived from shared conditions or by recourse to the same techniques.

Criticism of the humanistic variety championed by Seaton is found today not in academic journals but in popular literary reviews and journals such as this one. It has the important civic function of educating and inspiring mass audiences. Humanism rejects the “implicit promise” of cultural studies “that adepts gain the ability to make authoritative pronouncements about all aspects of human life without going to the trouble of learning the rudiments of any particular discipline.” Humanism, instead, engages in public debate without resorting to naked polemics; its practitioners understand or at least appreciate the complexity of the cultural norms and standards of readers outside the ivory tower. Professors in the academy, on the other hand, disconnected from the lifestyles and manners and conventions of the general public, tend to write themselves into little corners, retreating from the potential scrutiny of educated laypeople and insisting that true scholarship “requires specialization on topics specific enough to allow for the production of new knowledge, not open-ended conversation about questions to which no definitive answer is possible.” Seaton’s model of humanism advocates a different errand: “to make available to the larger culture the testimony of literature on human life … by accurately assessing the literary merit of the witness.”

They waste it that do state it with no style. Seaton, accordingly, makes short work of the “dominant theorizing” that lacks “literary distinction,” and he does so with his own unique style that remains as accessible to the educated layperson as it is to professional scholars of literature. His is not the delightfully repetitious, grandstanding prose of a Harold Bloom or Richard Poirier—the type of prose that, in its very makeup, shouts down the technical writing of hyper-professionalized humanities scholarship. Yet Seaton can turn a phrase with the best of them. Although it is a subsidiary point, the notion that a critic should write in a mode many people will enjoy is the literary equivalent to popular sovereignty: the common reader, not the expert, ought to determine which works continue to be read and therefore which become canonized. Like his guides Ralph Ellison and Dwight Macdonald, Seaton, mindful of his audience, takes pains to avoid jargon even as he discusses such theorists as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno whose writing is riddled with esoterica.

Seaton ends with a hopeful note: “Although the task of addressing the arguments of the dominant contemporary theories is important, the decisive answer [to the question what to do now that the dominant theories dismiss the importance of literature to life and thought] will come from the literary criticism of the twenty-first century that conveys to the general public the pleasures and insights that poems, plays, and fiction continue to make available to all those willing to attend.” Let’s hope the coming decades yield critics like Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, who were “members of a humanistic tradition capacious enough to study the connections between literature and society while also insisting that poems, plays, and novels should be judged on their own merits as works of art.”

It isn’t that the political and social sphere should be off-limits to critics, only that critics should, as Seaton does, subordinate their political and social presuppositions to aesthetic judgments, the most discerning of which account for the value of imaginative literature to plain living and high thinking. The best criticism helps us to understand how literature makes life better, more meaningful, and more fulfilling. Simple as it sounds, this proposition is tremendously complex because of the tremendous complexity of life itself. Held to his own high standards, Seaton succeeds: his chapters force you to consider what role literature has played in your own development, and how that role might play out in the lives of others. Good literature is more than a material object; it’s a way of living, a crucial check on those who purport to know it all with utter certainty.

Are Lawyers Illiterate?

In Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, Imagination, Law, Literature, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 3, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This piece originally appeared here in The Imaginative Conservative.

Webster’s defines “intelligent” as “endowed with intelligence or intellect; possessed of, or exhibiting, a high or fitting degree of intelligence or understanding.” This modern understanding of “intelligence” as an innate disposition or propensity differs from earlier understandings of the word as meaning “versed” or “skilled.” Milton, for instance, in Paradise Lost, calls the eagle and the stork “intelligent of seasons,” by which he meant that these birds, because of their experience, were cognizant of the seasons.

The older meaning of “intelligent” has less to do with native endowment than it does with gradual understanding. The older meaning, in other words, is that intelligence is acquired by effort and exposure rather than fixed by biological inheritance or natural capacity: one may become intelligent and is not just born that way; intelligence is a cultivated faculty, not an intrinsic feature.

Because of the altered signification of “intelligent,” we use today different words to describe the older meaning: erudite, knowledgeable, informed, traveled, educated. These words seem to us more palatable than their once-favored predecessors: civilized, polished, cultured, genteel, refined. I myself prefer words like “lettered” or “versed” that imply a knowledge of important books and the humanities generally.

The most apt term in this regard is also the most butchered in the current lexicon: “literate.” Contrary to what appears to be the prevailing assumption, “literate” does not simply refer to an ability to read. According to Webster’s, “literate” means “instructed in letters, educated; pertaining to, or learned in, literature.”

Not just to read, but to read well and widely—that is how you become “literate.” Accepting this traditional meaning, I question how many lawyers are or can become literate.

In the 1980s, Ithiel de Sola Pool, a professor of communications and media, determined that the average American adult reads approximately 240 words per minute. At that rate, it would take a person around 2,268.36 minutes (or 37 hours, 48 minutes, and 21.6 seconds) to read War and Peace, which comes in at 544,406 words. If that sounds encouraging—ever wanted to read War and Peace in a day-and-a-half?—consider these offsetting variables: reading at one sitting slows over time; attention span and memory recall are limited; the mind can be exercised only so much before it requires rest; people cannot constantly read for 2,268.36 minutes without going to the restroom or eating or daydreaming, among other things; a healthy lifestyle entails seven to nine hours of sleep per day; large portions of the day are spent carrying out quotidian operations, including showering, cooking, brushing teeth, commuting to and from work, getting dressed and undressed, answering phone calls, reading emails, cleaning, filling out paperwork, paying bills, and so on. Pool, moreover, was not using a text like War and Peace to gather his data, and his subjects were not writing in the margins of their books, taking notes on their laptops, or pausing to engage others in critical conversations about some narrative.

The National Association for Legal Career Professionals has estimated that lawyers at large firms bill on average 1,859 hours per year and work 2,208 hours per year. These numbers are more troubling in view of the fact that large law firms require their attorneys to attend functions with clients and potential clients, time that is neither billable nor considered “working hours.”

If there are around 8,760 hours in a year, and if a healthy person spends about 2,920 of those sleeping, there remain only around 5,840 hours per year for everything else. If “everything else” consisted of nothing—nothing at all—except reading War and Peace, then a lawyer at a large law firm could read that book about 154 times a year. But of course this is not possible, because no person can function as a machine functions. Once the offsetting variables are accounted for—and I have listed only a few that immediately spring to mind, and these for people with no families—it becomes apparent that it is nearly impossible for a lawyer to read more than about four lengthy or difficult books each month, and only the most diligent and disciplined can accomplish that.

Numbers can lead us astray, so let us consider some anecdotal evidence—my own testimony—which suggests that most lawyers are illiterate, or perhaps that lawyers have to try really hard to become literate or to avoid losing their literacy.

I am a lawyer, one who considers himself literate but increasingly in danger of becoming illiterate the longer I remain in my chosen profession. My hope is that literacy stays with you, that if you “frontload,” as it were, you can build a wide enough base to allow for slack in later years.

In 2013, I made an effort to overcome the time restrictions of my job to read through several canonical texts of Western Civilization. For the most part I undertook a book a week, although, because of scheduling constraints, I read what I took to be the most important or most famous sections of the lengthier books and volumes such as Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, a work that would require years of study to fully appreciate. I found myself, on many Thursday evenings, reading so rapidly to finish the text at hand that I could not enjoy myself or absorb the nuances and complexities established by the author.

Reading only one book a week when you are intelligent enough to read more is shameful and disgraceful, the sacrifice of a gift. During graduate school, I could read five or six books a week and can recall more than one week when I read a book a day. But each day I spend working as a lawyer, I am less able to digest the books I consume and to consume the books necessary for intellectual nourishment.

Economists use the term “opportunity cost” to refer to a choice to forego options or to pursue the benefits of one course of action rather than another. The cost of becoming a lawyer is giving up literacy or making its attainment more difficult; the gain, in theory, is a higher salary and financial stability. Whether the gain neutralizes the loss depends on one’s preferences. I myself would not trade for a million dollars the opportunity to read Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Aristotle or Santayana.

To achieve the admiration enjoyed by lawyers, other professionals must do their jobs several times better. Happily, this is not a high bar. That is why people prefer the company of doctors. It is not that lawyers are incompetent or unskilled; it is that they do not put their faculties to good use. All people think, but it is only by degree and by the object of their thought that the literate are distinguished from the illiterate. To put their minds to humane use would improve lawyers’ reputations considerably and call into question that axiom popularized by one of Dickens’s characters: “If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.”

The way I see it, you can spend all your life billing clients and pushing paper under great stress, by investing your talents and resources in prospects that yield no intellectual returns, or you can spend your life establishing high standards of reason, understanding, and creativity by studying the most important and influential works that humans have produced through the ages. You can spend all your time transacting business, prosecuting and defending lawsuits, and preparing briefs and memoranda, or you can cultivate discernment and understanding. The options are not mutually exclusive: I have overstated to draw a sharp contrast, but the point remains.

Do not misunderstand me: working hard and earning profits are not only good and healthy activities but personally fulfilling. Yet they must be supplemented with humane contemplation and the private study of important ideas. Industry and innovation are requisite to a high quality of life, a robust economy, and human flourishing—and they make possible the time and leisure that enable some people to create great art and literature. Not everyone can be literate, and that is a good thing.

It is just that many lawyers never learn to live well and wisely, to place their seemingly urgent matters into perspective, or to appreciate, as Aristotle did, the virtues of moderation. This failure is directly related to lawyers’ neglect of history and philosophy and to their suppression of the moral imagination that works of good literature can awaken. This failure, as well, puts lawyers at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to spiritual, moral, and intellectual pursuits. As Mark Twain quipped, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”

Lawyers are illiterate, most of them anyway. Trust them to handle your real estate closings or to manage your negligence claims, to finalize your divorce or to dash off angry letters to your competitors, but do not trust them to instruct you on plain living and high thinking. There are exceptions—Gerald Russello and Daniel Kornstein are two—but generally lawyers are not to be consulted on matters of importance to the soul. For those, we have good books, and with luck, the people who write and read them.

Pragmatists Versus Agrarians?

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Conservatism, Emerson, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Politics, Pragmatism, Southern History, Southern Literature, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on June 19, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This review originally appeared here at The University Bookman.

John J. Langdale’s Superfluous Southerners paints a magnificent portrait of Southern conservatism and the Southern Agrarians, and it will become recognized as an outstanding contribution to the field of Southern Studies. It charts an accurate and compelling narrative regarding Southern, Agrarian conservatism during the twentieth century, but it erroneously conflates Northern liberalism with pragmatism, muddying an otherwise immaculate study.

Langdale sets up a false dichotomy as his foundational premise: progressive, Northern pragmatists versus traditionalist, Southern conservatives. From this premise, he draws several conclusions: that Southern conservatism offers a revealing context for examining the gradual demise of traditional humanism in America; that Northern pragmatism, which ushered in modernity in America, was an impediment to traditional humanism; that “pragmatic liberalism” (his term) was Gnostic insofar as it viewed humanity as perfectible; that the man of letters archetype finds support in Southern conservatism; that Southern conservatives eschewed ideology while Northern liberals used it to present society as constantly ameliorating; that Southern conservatives celebrated “superfluity” in order to preserve canons and traditions; that allegedly superfluous ways of living were, in the minds of Southern conservatives, essential to cultural stability; that Agrarianism arose as a response to the New Humanism; and that superfluous Southerners, so deemed, refined and revised established values for new generations.

In short, his argument is that Southern conservatives believed their errand was to defend and reanimate a disintegrating past. This belief is expressed in discussion of the work of six prominent Southern men of letters spanning two generations: John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks, Richard Weaver, and M. E. Bradford.

Langdale ably demonstrates how the Southern Agrarians mounted an effective and tireless rhetorical battle against organized counterforces, worried that scientific and industrial progress would replace traditional faith in the unknown and mysterious, and fused poetry and politics to summon forth an ethos of Romanticism and chivalry. He sketches the lines of thought connecting the earliest Agrarians to such later Southerners as Weaver and Bradford. He is so meticulous in his treatment of Southern conservatives that it is surprising the degree to which he neglects the constructive and decent aspects of pragmatism.

Careful to show that “Agrarianism, far from a monolithic movement, had always been as varied as the men who devised it,” he does not exercise the same fastidiousness and impartiality towards the pragmatists, who are branded with derogatory labels throughout the book even though their ideas are never explained in detail. The result is a series of avoidable errors.

First, what Langdale treats as a monolithic antithesis to Southern conservatism is actually a multifaceted philosophy marked by only occasional agreement among its practitioners. C. S. Peirce was the founder of pragmatism, followed by William James, yet Peirce considered James’s pragmatism so distinct from his own that he renamed his philosophy “pragmaticism.” John Dewey reworked James’s pragmatism until his own version retained few similarities with James’s or Peirce’s. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. never identified himself as a pragmatist, and his jurisprudence is readily distinguishable from the philosophy of Peirce, James, and Dewey. Each of these men had nuanced interpretations of pragmatism that are difficult to harmonize with each other, let alone view as a bloc against Southern, traditionalist conservatism.

Second, the Southern Agrarians espoused ideas that were generally widespread among Southerners, embedded in Southern culture, and reflective of Southern attitudes. By contrast, pragmatism was an academic enterprise rejected by most Northern intellectuals and completely out of the purview of the average Northern citizen. Pragmatism was nowhere near representative of Northern thinking, especially not in the political or economic realm, and it is hyperbolic to suggest, as Langdale does, that pragmatism influenced the intellectual climate in the North to the extent that traditionalist conservatism influenced the intellectual climate in the South.

Third, the pragmatism of Peirce and James is not about sociopolitical or socioeconomic advancement. It is a methodology, a process of scientific inquiry. It does not address conservatism per se or liberalism per se. It can lead one to either conservative or liberal outcomes, although the earliest pragmatists rarely applied it to politics as such. It is, accordingly, a vehicle to an end, not an end itself. Peirce and James viewed it as a technique to ferret out the truth of an idea by subjecting concrete data to rigorous analysis based on statistical probability, sustained experimentation, and trial and error. Although James occasionally undertook to discuss political subjects, he did not treat pragmatism as the realization of political fantasy. Pragmatism, properly understood, can be used to validate a political idea, but does not comprise one.

The Southern Agrarians may have privileged poetic supernaturalism over scientific inquiry; it does not follow, however, that pragmatists like Peirce and James evinced theories with overt or intended political consequences aimed at Southerners or traditionalists or, for that matter, Northern liberals. Rather than regional conflict or identity, the pragmatists were concerned with fine-tuning what they believed to be loose methods of science and epistemology and metaphysics. They identified with epistemic traditions of Western philosophy but wanted to distill them to their core, knowing full well that humans could not perfect philosophy, only tweak it to become comprehensible and meaningful for a given moment. On the other hand, the Southern Agrarians were also concerned with epistemology and metaphysics, but their concern was invariably colored by regional associations, their rhetoric inflected with political overtones. Both Southern Agrarians and pragmatists attempted to conserve the most profitable and essential elements of Western philosophy; opinions about what those elements were differed from thinker to thinker.

Fourth, Langdale’s caricature (for that is what it is) of pragmatism at times resembles a mode of thought that is alien to pragmatism. For instance, he claims that “pragmatism is a distinctly American incarnation of the historical compulsion to the utopian and of what philosopher Eric Voegelin described as the ancient tradition of ‘gnosticism.’” Nothing, however, is more fundamental to pragmatism than the rejection of utopianism or Gnosticism. That rejection is so widely recognized that even Merriam-Webster lists “pragmatism” as an antonym for “utopian.”

Pragmatism is against teleology and dogma; it takes as its starting point observable realities rather than intangible, impractical abstractions and ideals. What Langdale describes is more like Marxism: a messianic ideology with a sprawling, utopian teleology regarding the supposedly inevitable progress of humankind.

Given that pragmatism is central to his thesis, it is telling that Langdale never takes the time to define it, explain the numerous differences between leading pragmatists, or analyze any landmark pragmatist texts. The effect is disappointing.

Landgale’s approach to “superfluity” makes Superfluous Southerners the inverse of Richard Poirier’s 1992 Poetry and Pragmatism: whereas Langdale relates “superfluity” to Southern men of letters who conserve what the modern era has ticketed as superfluous, Poirier relates “superfluity” to Emerson and his literary posterity in Robert Frost, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound. Both notions of superfluity contemplate the preservation of perennial virtues and literary forms; one, however, condemns pragmatism while the other applauds it.

For both Langdale and Poirier, “superfluity” is good. It is not a term of denunciation as it is usually taken to be. Langdale cites Hungarian sociologist Karl Mannheim to link “superfluity” to traditionalists who transform and adapt ideas to “the new stage of social and mental development,” thus keeping “alive a ‘strand’ of social development which would otherwise have become extinct.”

Poirier also links superfluity to an effort to maintain past ideas. His notion of “superfluity,” though, refers to the rhetorical excesses and exaggerated style that Emerson flaunted to draw attention to precedents that have proven wise and important. By reenergizing old ideas with creative and exhilarating language, Emerson secured their significance for a new era. In this respect, Emerson is, in Poirier’s words, “radically conservative.”

Who is right? Langdale or Poirier? Langdale seeks to reserve superfluity for the province of Southern, traditionalist conservatives. Does this mean that Poirier is wrong? And if Poirier is right, does not Langdale’s binary opposition collapse into itself?

These questions notwithstanding, it is strange that Langdale would accuse the Emersonian pragmatic tradition of opposing that which, according to Poirier, it represents. Although it would be wrong to call Emerson a political conservative, he cannot be said to lack a reverence for history. A better, more conservative criticism of Emerson—which Langdale mentions in his introduction—would involve Emerson’s transcendentalism that promoted a belief in innate human goodness. Such idealism flies in the face of Southern traditionalism, which generally abides by the Augustinian doctrine of innate human depravity and the political postures appertaining thereto.

What Langdale attributes to pragmatism is in fact a bane to most pragmatists. A basic tenet of pragmatism, for instance, is human fallibilism, which is in keeping with the doctrine of innate human depravity and which Peirce numbers as among his reasons for supporting the scientific method. Peirce’s position is that one human mind is imperfect and cannot by itself reach trustworthy conclusions; therefore, all ideas must be filtered through the logic and experimentation of a community of thinkers; a lasting and uniform consensus is necessary to verify the validity of any given hypothesis. This is, of course, anathema to the transcendentalist’s conviction that society corrupts the inherent power and goodness of the individual genius.

Langdale’s restricted view of pragmatism might have to do with unreliable secondary sources. He cites, of all people, Herbert Croly for the proposition that, in Croly’s words, “democracy cannot be disentangled from an aspiration toward human perfectibility.” The connection between Croly and pragmatism seems to be that Croly was a student of James, but so was the politically and methodologically conservative C. I. Lewis. And let us not forget that the inimitable Jacques Barzun, who excoriated James’s disciples for exploiting and misreading pragmatism, wrote an entire book—A Stroll with William James—which he tagged as “the record of an intellectual debt.”

Pragmatism is a chronic target for conservatives who haven’t read much pragmatism. Frank Purcell has written in Taki’s Magazine about “conservatives who break into hives at the mere mention of pragmatism.” Classical pragmatists are denominated as forerunners of progressivism despite having little in common with progressives. The chief reason for this is the legacy of John Dewey and Richard Rorty, both proud progressives and, nominally at least, pragmatists.

Dewey, behind James, is arguably the most recognizable pragmatist, and it is his reputation, as championed by Rorty, that has done the most to generate negative stereotypes and misplaced generalizations about pragmatism. Conservatives are right to disapprove of Dewey’s theories of educational reform and social democracy, yet he is just one pragmatist among many, and there are important differences between his ideas and the ideas of other pragmatists.

In fact, the classical pragmatists have much to offer conservatives, and conservatives—even the Southern Agrarians—have supported ideas that are compatible with pragmatism, if not outright pragmatic. Burkean instrumentalism, committed to gradualism and wary of ideological extremes, is itself a precursor to social forms of pragmatism, although it bears repeating that social theories do not necessarily entail political action.

Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind traces philosophical continuities and thus provides clarifying substance to the pragmatist notion that ideas evolve over time and in response to changing technologies and social circumstances, while always retaining what is focal or fundamental to their composition. The original subtitle of that book was “From Burke to Santayana,” and it is remarkable, is it not, that both Burke and Santayana are pragmatists in their own way? Santayana was plugged into the pragmatist network, having worked alongside James and Josiah Royce, and he authored one of the liveliest expressions of pragmatism ever written: The Life of Reason. Although Santayana snubbed the label, general consensus maintains that he was a pragmatist. It is also striking that Kirk places John Randolph of Roanoke and John C. Calhoun, both Southern conservatives, between these pragmatists on his map of conservative thought. There is, in that respect, an implication that pragmatism complements traditionalism.

Langdale relies on Menand’s outline of pragmatism and appears to mimic Menand’s approach to intellectual history. It is as though Langdale had hoped to write the conservative, Southern companion to The Metaphysical Club. He does not succeed because his representation of pragmatism is indelibly stamped by the ideas of Rorty, who repackaged pragmatism in postmodern lexica. Moreover, Langdale’s failure or refusal to describe standing differences between the classical pragmatists and neo-pragmatists means that his book is subject to the same critique that Susan Haack brought against Menand.

Haack lambasted Menand for sullying the reputation of the classical pragmatists by associating pragmatism with nascent Rortyianism—“vulgar Rortyianism,” in her words. Langdale seems guilty of this same supposition. By pitting pragmatism against Southern conservatism, he implies that Southern conservatism rejects, among other features, the application of mathematics to the scientific method, the analysis of probabilities derived from data sampling and experimentation, and the prediction of outcomes in light of statistical inferences. The problem is that the Agrarians did not oppose these things, although their focus on preserving the literary and cultural traditions of the South led them to express their views through poetry and story rather than as philosophy. But there is nothing in these methods of pragmatism (as opposed to the uses some later pragmatists may have put to them) that is antithetical to Southern Agrarianism.

Superfluous Southerners is at its best when it sticks to its Southern subjects and does not undertake comparative analyses of intellectual schools. It is at its worst when it resorts to incorrect and provocative phrases about “the gnostic hubris of pragmatists” or “the gnostic spirit of American pragmatic liberalism.” Most of its chapters do a remarkable job teasing out distinctions between its Southern conservative subjects and narrating history about the Southern Agrarians’ relationship to modernity, commitment to language and literature, and role as custodians of a fading heritage. Unfortunately, his book confounds the already ramified philosophy known as pragmatism, and at the expense of the Southern traditionalism that he and I admire.

American Literary History and Pragmatism

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Emerson, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Walt Whitman, Writing on August 29, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

American literary history, even before C.S. Peirce named “pragmatism” as a philosophy, validates much of what pragmatism has to offer.  Joan Richardson speaks of “frontier instances” whereby certain writers become aesthetic outposts from which we can trace continuities of thought and artistic representation.  She treats literature as a life form that must adapt to its environment; similarly, Richard Poirier looks to a tradition of linguistic skepticism in American literature to show the role that artistic influence and troping have had on American culture.  Long before Richardson and Poirier, George Santayana exercised his own literary flair in his celebratory, summative essays about American culture and experience.  If American literary history can undergo operations of tracing and mapping, it might be because—as Richardson, Poirier, and Santayana have suggested—the unfolding and development of an American literary canon have been processes of evolution.  Literary texts and movements have shown a tendency toward growth that is responsive to the natural and changing circumstances of the time.

Richardson begins A Natural History of Pragmatism with 17th century Puritan ministers and then quickly moves to Jonathan Edwards.  Edwards is representative of the Calvinist notion of limited disclosure, the idea, in other words, that God reveals his divinity to us through the shapes, forms, and outlines he provides to us in the phenomenal world.  From this idea (and others like it) began the uniquely American insistence on the value of nature and the physical universe to thought and the spiritual or psychological realm.  As Americans sought to make themselves culturally and intellectually independent from Europe, both in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they used the New World landscapes and vastly unexplored (by Europeans at least) terrains as objects of their fascination and as sources of inspiration.  Even figures like Jefferson insisted upon the scientific study of the natural world in order to authorize theories about law and politics, which he wished to distinguish from European ways.  Jefferson, like William Bartram, another naturalist, lionized Natives as being more in tune with nature and hence more “lawful” in the sense that their communal governments were in keeping with the laws of nature.  However problematic we may consider these romanticized depictions today, we should at least say of them that they inspired further attention to sustained observation of nature as a critical component of what was intended to be a new way of thinking divorced from the Old World of Europe.

Santayana says that when orthodoxy recedes, speculation flourishes, and accordingly it is no surprise that as Puritanism solidified into an orthodoxy of the kind against which it once defined itself, there was a resistance among artists and writers and thinkers.  Emerson, for one, adapted the thinking of the Calvinists while maintaining their commitment to the natural world as a means for realizing higher truths.  Instead of God revealing himself to man through the forms of the natural world, God, according to Emerson, was realized within the person with a poetical sense, who was inspired by the natural world to discover the divinity within himself.  To become one and to see all—that is, to become a “transparent eyeball”—was something of a religious experience for Emerson.  Read the rest of this entry »

Emersonian Individualism

In America, American History, Art, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Epistemology, Essays, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Pragmatism, Rhetoric, Santayana, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on April 4, 2012 at 6:48 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following essay originally appeared here at Mises Daily.

Ralph Waldo Emerson is politically elusive. He’s so elusive that thinkers from various schools and with various agendas have appropriated his ideas to validate some activity or another. Harold Bloom once wrote, “In the United States, we continue to have Emersonians of the Left (the post-Pragmatist Richard Rorty) and of the Right (a swarm of libertarian Republicans, who exalt President Bush the Second).”[1] We’ll have to excuse Bloom’s ignorance of political movements and signifiers — libertarians who exalt President Bush, really? — and focus instead on Bloom’s point that Emerson’s influence is evident in a wide array of contemporary thinkers and causes.

Bloom is right that what “matters most about Emerson is that he is the theologian of the American religion of Self-Reliance.”[2] Indeed, the essay “Self-Reliance” remains the most cited of Emerson’s works, and American politicians and intellectuals selectively recycle ideas of self-reliance in the service of often disparate goals.

Emerson doesn’t use the term “individualism” in “Self-Reliance,” which was published in 1841, when the term “individualism” was just beginning to gain traction. Tocqueville unintentionally popularized the signifier “individualism” with the publication of Democracy in America. He used a French term that had no counterpart in English. Translators of Tocqueville labored over this French term because its signification wasn’t part of the English lexicon. Emerson’s first mention of “individualism” was not until 1843.

It is clear, though, that Emerson’s notion of self-reliance was tied to what later would be called “individualism.” Emerson’s individualism was so radical that it bordered on self-deification. Only through personal will could one realize the majesty of God. Nature for Emerson was like the handwriting of God, and individuals with a poetical sense — those who had the desire and capability to “read” nature — could understand nature’s universal, divine teachings.

Lakes, streams, meadows, forests — these and other phenomena were, according to Emerson, sources of mental and spiritual pleasure or unity. They were what allowed one to become “part and parcel with God,” if only one had or could become a “transparent eyeball.” “Nothing at last is sacred,” Emerson said, “but the integrity of your own mind.” That’s because a person’s intellect translates shapes and forms into spiritual insights.

We cannot judge Emerson exclusively on the basis of his actions. Emerson didn’t always seem self-reliant or individualistic. His politics, to the extent that they are knowable, could not be called libertarian. We’re better off judging Emerson on the basis of his words, which could be called libertarian, even if they endow individualism with a religiosity that would make some people uncomfortable.

Emerson suggests in “Self-Reliance” that the spontaneous expression of thought or feeling is more in keeping with personal will, and hence with the natural world as constituted by human faculties, than that which is passively assumed or accepted as right or good, or that which conforms to social norms. Emerson’s individualism or self-reliance exalted human intuition, which precedes reflection, and it privileged the will over the intellect. Feeling and sensation are antecedent to reason, and Emerson believed that they registered moral truths more important than anything cognition could summon forth.

Emerson’s transcendentalism was, as George Santayana pointed out in 1911, a method conducive to the 19-century American mindset.[3] As a relatively new nation seeking to define itself, America was split between two mentalities, or two sources of what Santayana called the “genteel tradition”: Calvinism and transcendentalism.

The American philosophical tradition somehow managed to reconcile these seeming dualities. On the one hand, Calvinism taught that the self was bad, that man was depraved by nature and saved only by the grace of God. On the other hand, transcendentalism taught that the self was good, that man was equipped with creative faculties that could divine the presence of God in the world. The Calvinist distrusted impulses and urges as sprung from an inner evil. The transcendentalist trusted impulses and urges as moral intuition preceding society’s baseless judgments and prevailing conventions.

What these two philosophies had in common was an abiding awareness of sensation and perception: a belief that the human mind registers external data in meaningful and potentially spiritual ways. The Calvinist notion of limited disclosure — that God reveals his glory through the natural world — played into the transcendentalists’ conviction that the natural world supplied instruments for piecing together divinity.

The problem for Santayana is that transcendentalism was just a method, a way of tapping into one’s poetical sense. What one did after that was unclear. Santayana thought that transcendentalism was the right method, but he felt that Emerson didn’t use that method to instruct us in practical living. Transcendentalism was a means to an end, but not an end itself.

According to Santayana, Emerson “had no system” because he merely “opened his eyes on the world every morning with a fresh sincerity, marking how things seemed to him then, or what they suggested to his spontaneous fancy.”[4] Emerson did not seek to group all senses and impressions into a synthetic whole. Nor did he suggest a politics toward which senses and impressions ought to lead. Santayana stops short of accusing Emerson of advancing an “anything-goes” metaphysics. But Santayana does suggest that Emerson failed to advance a set of principles; instead, Emerson gave us a technique for arriving at a set of principles. Emerson provided transportation, but gave no direction. This shortcoming — if it is a shortcoming — might explain why Bloom speaks of the “paradox of Emerson’s influence,” namely, that “Peace Marchers and Bushians alike are Emerson’s heirs in his dialectics of power.”[5]

For Emerson, human will is paramount. It moves the intellect to create. It is immediate, not mediate. In other words, it is the sense or subjectivity that is not yet processed by the human mind. We ought to trust the integrity of will and intuition and avoid the dictates and decorum of society.

“Society,” Emerson says, “everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” Society corrupts the purity of the will by forcing individuals to second-guess their impulses and to look to others for moral guidance. Against this socialization, Emerson declares, “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.”

Emerson’s nonconformist ethic opposed habits of thinking, which society influenced but did not determine. Emerson famously stated that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. What he meant, I think, is that humans ought to improve themselves by tapping into intuitive truths. Nature, with her figures, forms, and outlines, provides images that the individual can harness to create beauty and energize the self. Beauty therefore does not exist in the world; rather, the human mind makes beauty out of the externalities it has internalized. Beauty, accordingly, resides within us, but only after we create it.

Here we see something similar to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism stripped of its appeals to divinity. Rand believed that reality existed apart from the thinking subject, that the thinking subject employs reason and logic to make sense of experience and perception, and that the self or will is instrumental in generating meaning from the phenomenal world. Read the rest of this entry »

Henry Hazlitt, Literary Critic

In American History, Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Book Reviews, Creative Writing, Creativity, Economics, Essays, Ethics, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on March 20, 2012 at 9:05 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following appeared here at Prometheus Unbound and here at

Remembered mostly for his contributions to economics, including his pithy and still-timely classic Economics in One Lesson (1946), Henry Hazlitt was a man who wore many hats. He was a public intellectual and the author or editor of some 28 books, one of which was a novel, The Great Idea (1961) — published in Britain and later republished in the United States as Time Will Run Back (1966) — and another of which, The Anatomy of Criticism (1933), was a trialogue on literary criticism. (Hazlitt’s book came out 24 years before Northrop Frye published a book of criticism under the same title.) Great-great-grandnephew to British essayist William Hazlitt, the boy Henry wanted to become like the eminent pragmatist and philosopher-psychologist William James, who was known for his charming turns of phrase and literary sparkle. Relative poverty would prevent Hazlitt’s becoming the next James. But the man Hazlitt forged his own path, one that established his reputation as an influential man of letters.

In part because of his longstanding support for free-market economics, scholars of literature have overlooked Hazlitt’s literary criticism; and Austrian economists — perhaps for lack of interest, perhaps for other reasons — have done little to restore Hazlitt’s place among the pantheon of 20th century literary critics. Yet Hazlitt deserves that honor.

He may not have been a Viktor Shklovsky, Roman Jakobson, Cleanth Brooks, William K. Wimsatt, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, or Kenneth Burke, but Hazlitt’s criticism is valuable in negative terms: he offers a corrective to much that is wrong with literary criticism, both then and now. His positive contributions to literary criticism seem slight when compared to those of the figures named in the previous sentence. But Hazlitt is striking in his ability to anticipate problems with contemporary criticism, especially the tendency to judge authors by their identity. Hazlitt’s contributions to literary criticism were not many, but they were entertaining and erudite, rivaling as they did the literary fashions of the day and packing as much material into a few works as other critics packed into their entire oeuvres. Read the rest of this entry »

How I Taught Sustainability

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Emerson, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on January 9, 2012 at 1:12 am

Allen Mendenhall

Last spring I learned that I had been assigned to teach a freshman writing course on sustainability.  I don’t know much about sustainability, at least not in the currently popular sense of that term, and for many other reasons I was not thrilled about having to teach this course.  So I decided to put a spin on the subject.  What follows is an abridged version of my syllabus.  I owe more than a little gratitude to John Hasnas for the sections called “The Classroom Experience,” “Present and Prepared Policy,” and “Ground Rules for Discussion.”  He created these policies, and, with a few exceptions, the language from these policies is taken from a syllabus he provided during a workshop at a July 2011 Institute for Humane Studies conference on teaching and pedagogy.

Sustainability and American Communities

What is sustainability?  You have registered for this course about sustainability, so presumably you have some notion of what sustainability means.  The Oxford English Dictionary treats “sustainability” as a derivative of “sustainable,” which is defined as

  1. Capable of being borne or endured; supportable, bearable.
  2. Capable of being upheld or defended; maintainable.
  3. Capable of being maintained at a certain rate or level.

Recently, though, sustainability has become associated with ecology and the environment.  The OED dates this development as beginning in 1980 and trending during the 1990s.  The OED also defines “sustainability” in the ecological context as follows: “Of, relating to, or designating forms of human economic activity and culture that do not lead to environmental degradation, esp. avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources.”  With this definition in mind, we will examine landmark American authors and texts and discuss their relationship to sustainability.  You will read William Bartram, Thomas Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Mark Twain, and others.  Our readings will address nature, community, place, stewardship, husbandry, and other concepts related to sustainability.  By the end of the course, you will have refined your understanding of sustainability through the study of literary texts. 

Course Objectives

I have designed this course to help you improve your reading, writing, and thinking skills.  In this course, you will learn to write prose for general, academic, and professional audiences.  ENGL 1120 is a writing course, not a lecture course.  Plan to work on your writing every night.  You will have writing assignments every week. Read the rest of this entry »

A Few More Words on Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Politics on October 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Many American politicians call themselves “conservative” despite never having read Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, Robert Taft, Donald Davidson, Frank Meyer, Richard Weaver, James Burnham, or Russell Kirk.  Television pundits recycle the term “neoconservative” without even a passing reference to Leo Strauss, Irving Kristol, or Norman Podhoretz.  A welcome respite from the ignorance of the talking heads, Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives (Yale University Press, 2009) is an engaging and informative book, even if it is more of an introduction to American conservatism than a critical study.  I recently reviewed the book here at the journal 49th Parallel, but I have more to say about it.

American conservatism is rich and complex but too often simplified or ignored by academics who think they know what conservatism means.  I applaud Allitt for taking conservatism seriously and for marshaling a wealth of evidence to support his thesis.  Those who cannot identify what generally distinguishes a paleoconservative from a neoconservative, or who’re confused by the apparent hypocrisy of conservatives who call for big-government spending on military and surveillance while griping about big-government, need to read this book.  Allitt provides clarity and direction for the uninitiated.  He deserves not just our attention, but our admiration.

Allitt attends to several figures in this book, including John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, William Cobbett, John Marshall, John Randolph of Roanoke, George Fitzhugh, Rufus Choate, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, George Ticknor, Abraham Lincoln, Orestes Brownson, William Graham Sumner, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, John Crow Ransom, Andrew Lytle, H. L. Mencken, Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft, Albert Jay Nock, Ralph Adams Cram, George Santayana, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Barry Goldwater, George Will, Ronald Reagan, Michael Novak, Robert Bork, Allan Bloom, M. E. Bradford, Thomas Fleming, Clyde Wilson, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, Patrick Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, Roger Kimball, Thomas Sowell, Charles Murray, Dinesh D’Souza, and others.  One book cannot address every major figure that influenced American conservatism, and Allit’s failure to mention some names (Strom Thurmond, Gerald Ford, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Donald Rumsfeld, Wendell Berry, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, or any of the Bob Joneses) is understandable.  Paul Gottfried appears just once in the book, and passingly.  But a case could be made that Gottfried’s paleoconservatism is more European in origin and thus worthy of analysis.  And surely Eric Voegelin warrants more than a casual reference in a single paragraph.

For some, Allitt’s most objectionable suggestion will be that the Civil War was a conflict of two conservatisms: Calhoun’s versus Webster’s.  This interpretation illuminates and simultaneously complicates such recent debates as the one held between Thomas DiLorenzo and Harry V. Jaffa over the issue of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

Allitt also suggests that the Federalists represent an early manifestation of conservatism.  This classification would mean that Jefferson and his ilk were not conservatives, which would in turn imply that current Jeffersonians are not in keeping with a purely conservative tradition.  Allitt offers this helpful and accurate note about Jefferson: “He might not have been the Jacobin his Federalist foes alleged, but neither can he easily be thought of as a conservative.”  Many scholars and enthusiasts consider Jefferson to be a “classical liberal,” but the signification of that word relative to “libertarian” or “conservative” merely confounds definitional precision:  All three words have been used interchangeably and negligently in recent decades.  It may not matter if Jefferson is called “conservative” or “liberal,” especially if those terms cause people to short-circuit reflection or affix a contemporary label to a complicated man living in a complex, radically different era.

Allitt’s book is a fine contribution to and about conservative letters.  I recommend it to anyone who thinks he can explain conservatism.

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